Maria Valentin-Cruz’s voice cracks and tears spill onto her cheeks as she speaks about the pilgrimage she and 22 parishioners from San Juan Bautista in Lancaster recently made to the Holy Land.
“I’m crying just thinking about it,” she said, looking at a group photo taken as they descended the Mount of Olives, where Jesus ascended into Heaven.
“Visiting the Holy Land has been a dream I’ve had since I was little. As a child, I was always picked on whenever I’d say I wanted to go to the place where Jesus lived. My faith is my life. I was born Catholic, and I will die Catholic,” said Valentin-Cruz, a faithful volunteer at San Juan.
The pilgrimage, led by Father Luis Rodriguez, pastor, was conducted entirely in Spanish, affording parishioners the beauty and significance of speaking and worshiping in their native language as they walked in the footsteps of Jesus.
The itinerary included visits to the Sea of Galilee, the home of St. Mary Magdalene, the Mount of Beatitudes, the Church of the Transfiguration, the Basilica of the Annunciation, the Church of the Visitation, Cana, the sight of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan, the Dead Sea, the Church of the Nativity, the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane, the Basilica of the Agony, the Via Dolorosa and the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre.
In working with Select International Pilgrimage Tours and Cruises, Father Rodriguez said he wanted to “facilitate an intimate experience” for the Hispanic community. He said parishioners undertook a number of efforts to secure funds for the pilgrimage, including food sales and other fundraisers.
So eager to make the journey, parishioner José Marrero sold a vehicle in order to make his final payment.
“I knew I would do whatever I had to, to go on the pilgrimage,” he said. “I was inspired to go when I was watching Mass on TV during the pandemic. A priest in Mexico was talking about the experience he had, and I wanted to go, too. I had a car in my garage that I wasn’t going to drive again, so I sold it, and I was the last one to pay for the trip,” said Marrero.
From a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee and a wade in the minerals of the Dead Sea, to the renewal of wedding vows in Cana and a visit to the Wailing Wall, the pilgrims said their experiences were vastly different from what they had imagined when they first set out on the 11-day journey in January.
Marrero, for instance, had been nervous about visiting Israel, worried about potential conflict and harsh conditions. “When I got there, it was on my mind that it was going to be bad or dangerous, and that we would be traveling in a big desert for many hours without food or drink. But, it was a good experience for us, 180-degrees from what I thought,” he said.
Valentin-Cruz had some apprehension, too. Having had a number of surgeries on her lower limbs, she is unable to bend her knees and was concerned she might not be able to kneel and kiss the star of Bethlehem – the spot of Christ’s birth – imprinted on the floor of the Basilica of the Nativity.
“I told myself that even though I wouldn’t be able to kneel down, I was going to go there and everybody would help me get up off the floor. But God is so good, I was able to bend down on my own, kiss the star, and get back up without any help,” she said. “I touched it and kissed it, and I just wanted to stay at that star. I was in tears there. It was the greatest moment of my life.”
Eye-opening and spiritually moving experiences awaited Father Rodriguez, too, even though he had made previous trips to the Holy Land.
“At Caiaphas’ house, you’re in the yard where Peter denied Jesus, and you see where they dragged Jesus down the valley. Until you’re there, you don’t realize how far they made Him walk, and all the steps they drug Him down, shoving Him back and forth,” he said.
“Walking the Stations of the Cross, the narrow street is surrounded by shops that are tight together. You get the idea of how Jesus was going along the way and how everyone pressed in on him. It would have been easy to spit on Him or hit Him from the crowd. For me, that was eye opening,” Father Rodriguez said.
At the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Christ’s crucifixion and Resurrection, Father Rodriguez was able to concelebrate Mass. “The pilgrims came in, and the tears were just rolling down their eyes,” he said of the enormity of the experience.
Father Rodriguez is a Knight in the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, a lay institution dedicated to supporting the Church in the Holy Land through prayer, financial support and encounters with its people through pilgrimage.
During the pilgrimage, his parishioners visited local Christians in their homes, where they shared in a home-cooked meal and learned about the daily lives of Christians there and the persecution they face. In the Holy Land, Christians account for 1.9 percent of the population. They endure a high cost of living and lack of employment; are subject to high taxes, eviction and border blockages; and suffer from a lack of basic human rights.
Pilgrim Nilda Vega said the visits to the homes of the Christian families was an eye-opening experience.
“For us, we can go anywhere we want, but the Christians in the Holy Land are restricted. They’re Palestinian citizens, so they can work in the city, but at the end of the day they have to go home and don’t have freedom to go out where they want. They have to go through checkpoints and are limited to where they can go,” she said. “Still, they are strong in faith, and have left an impression on me.”
“On the pilgrimage, we are ambassadors for Christ while we’re there. We are also the family looking out for the extended family,” Father Rodriguez said of their efforts to support the Christian minority.
The group also visited the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and an orphanage for children of Palestine cared for by the Sisters, Servants of Our Lord and the Virgin of Matará.
“For me, as a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre, my goal is to help people see the truth and situation and inspire them to do something to help,” Father Rodriquez remarked. “Until and unless you visit a place where people only co-exist and have no freedom, you might not fully understand.”
As Holy Week and Easter approached, the pilgrims found themselves connected to the Biblical stories and Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection in a deeper way, having visited the place where he lived, taught and sacrificed for our salvation.
Vega is continually adding photos and mementos to a growing scrapbook, and frequently revisits photos and maps from the experience to continue studies about the place where our Lord lived and preached, died, was buried and rose to new life; where He instituted the Eucharist; and where the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
“I went to Catholic school and learned from the nuns and reading the Bible. I couldn’t believe I was in all the places I had been reading about since I was little,” said Vega. “You’re learning all your life about the life of Jesus and you know the story, but it’s completely different to be there and be touching it. It’s really emotional,” she said.
“It was the best thing I could ever do in my life, to walk in the steps of Jesus’ life,” she said. “My experience will become my testimony for my children and grandchildren. I show them the pictures and tell them the stories of what I saw. I feel I am different since the pilgrimage. I’m eager to read the Bible better and things are clearer for me since I was there. I have been reading my notes every day and looking at the maps and photos I took to continue studying and learning. I knew the Bible stories before, but now I see them better because I was there.”
For Valentin-Cruz, the pilgrimage was the realization of a lifelong dream come true, and she’s inspired to return to the Holy Land.
“Everything has changed for me – my spirituality, my faith, my life,” she expressed. “I have joy. When I read the Bible, I think ‘Oh, I was there!’ It’s an exciting feeling and I get excited about the faith. You understand the sacrifice Jesus made for you, and it’s a feeling I can’t explain. And we still sin and we still crucify Him all over again, so I try to be more like a saint and be a better person. We realize we are rich – rich in spirituality and in our freedom.”
“I don’t have the words for this experience,” Valentin-Cruz said. “I am a sinner, and I am grateful that God allowed me to touch the places and the land that He touched and walk the places He walked.”
(Listen to an interview with Father Rodriguez about pilgrimages to the Holy Land and the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre on Candid Catholic Convos at this link.)
(Photos courtesy of San Juan Bautista Parish.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness